Picture Book University: Character Driven Picture Books

Hello, again! Hope your week was productive. I just spent five days with a bunch of tweens at a church camp and am a little tired, but I'm excited to dive into the next lesson! Each of those kids was so cute and this gave me the idea to highlight one of the best selling types of picture books--character driven. If you look at most agents who rep picture books, you'll find they often call for this type of book.

So, what is a character driven picture book exactly? I define it as a story that is more about who the character is than about the plot that drives the character. This makes that character memorable and live in the heart of a child. The reason why editors clamor for these types of books is because they not only sell but they can have marketing tie-in's if the book goes well plus, of course, there will be sequels which will make more money for the publishing house.

Some great recent examples of character driven picture books are Vampirina Ballerina by Anne Marie Pace, Otis by Loren Long, Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor, Big Mean Mike by Michelle Knudson, and Otto the Book Bear by Katie Clemenson. You can tell if the story is character driven by the title--it will be the main character's name. I wrote one--Princess Peepers! The sequels will often have the character's name plus the adventure, but the title book will most often be the character's name.

How do you go about writing one? When I set out to write Princess Peepers, I didn't know I was writing a character driven book, even though I'd studied them. After I'd finished, I had entitled the book, The Princess Who Wore Glasses, emphasizing wearing glasses. Once the story went through revisions, I noticed my focus shifted off the glasses and onto Princess Peepers herself and then I re-titled it. Because of Peepers' personality, she really has the ability for many more sequels and stories. You know you have a character that is memorable when this happens.

What are the qualities you must have for a true character driven book?

Must haves:

  • Unique characteristics that go outside the box
  • Have an emotional connection with children
  • The "star" of the book
  • Big internal conflict that outweighs the external conflict
  • Story focus is on the main character not on the plot (although most title character driven books have wonderful plots!)
  • If you take that particular character away from the story, it falls apart or you wouldn't have a story.
  • Character image is instantly recognizable (this is beyond a writer's control, but if you've written your character well, you won't have to worry about this.)
You know you've written a character driven book when a child can dress as your character and people will know who they are. I'm going to do an analysis of Vampirina Ballerina, showing you what makes this a perfect character in a title series. I'm all agog to tell you there is a sequel to this marvelous book coming out NEXT WEEK!!! It's entitled, Vampirina Ballerina Hosts a Sleepover

Vampirina Ballerina by Anne Marie Pace

Genre: Humor, character driven

Synopsis: When Vampirina decides to become a ballerina, she isn't like the other students which gives her all kinds of trouble (like she can't see herself in a mirror!) But with determination, she reaches her dreams.

(I'm not going to highlight the plot or style--only character elements)

  • Unique--to my knowledge, there has never been a vampire ballerina. She's the first! Her spooky qualities makes her a very unique ballerina.
  • Emotional connection--many little girls aspire to be a ballerina. All children want to be good at something.
  • Star quality--Vampirina is not only the star of the book, but is the star of the stage. You can't get any more star than that.
  • Big internal conflict--Vampirina must believe in herself in order to succeed.
  • Story focus--the story follows Vampirina on her quest to become a ballerina. She's very different from the other students and so she fails a lot because she's being herself--a vampire. This creates humorous situations as well as touching ones. 
  • If you take Vampirina out of the story, you have no story. The qualities of Vampirina's personality is what makes this story work. Replacing her with let's say, Princess Peepers, would create a totally different story plot. 
  • Character image is recognizable. They're now selling Vampirina Halloween costumes. AND Disney Jr. has just announced they are making this little ballerina into a preschool show! That's a marketable character!

Assignment 3:

  • Go to the library (by now, you should be on first name basis with the children's section librarian!) and check out 5 or more RECENT character driven picture books. They all must be the title book, meaning the first book in the character series. For example, check out Fancy Nancy not any of the titles after such as Fancy Nancy and the "Fill in the Blank"
  • Take them home and read them. Using your picture book journal (I hope you have one by now), write down the characteristics of each character that makes it a great character driven MC.
  • After you're done, can you list any more title characters that you either have in your own library or remember as a child? What makes them memorable? Was it the story or the qualities of that character? Can you see something in each one that is similar? 
Now look at your manuscripts. Do you have one character that might make a great character for a book of this type? Can you make a refocus shift to produce a better character driven book? Do you have any ideas for a character driven picture book?

If you know some stand out character driven picture books, please post them below. This might help your fellow picture book writers pick out some great examples!

As always, If you like this post, please hit the like button below or the twitter bird! 

Do you want to see other PBU posts? Click here: PBU

Happy reading and writing!


Unknown said…
Let's see... Character Driven Picture books, I LOVE Frankin and Biscuit. My kids also like Pinkalicious, Freddy (the turtle not the chapter books), Clifford, Spot and you cannot forget The Gruffalo!
Pam Calvert said…
I love Pinkalicious! And of course, Clifford, the epitome of a character driven pb. ;-)

I don't think I've checked out The Gruffalo. Sounds charming!

Thanks for sharing!!!
Unknown said…
And sure as I was reading picture books this morning, I realized that I mismatched the characters... It is Freddy the Frog!
If you haven't checked out the Gruffalo he is AWESOME - they also do a great job of character promoting. He has videos and amazing printables for kids and parents
Anonymous said…
I'm so glad you examined character-driven picture books, Pam! I do have a manuscript that I think is a perfect (well, it's not perfect yet) character-driven story...a young boy who refuses to take off his boots because he is a 'cowboy in training'...his name is Dylan McGee. :) I'll be at the library Thursday to get out a bunch of books, although I'm sure I've got shelves full of possibilities. How about 'Owen', 'Olivia' and 'Harold' (from Harold and the Purple Crayon).
Carrie Finison said…
These are great examples, Pam. I've been thinking a lot about character-driven books lately, as I've seen that term on many editors' and agents' wish-lists.

One recent one is "Crafty Chloe" - I haven't had a chance to look at it yet but from the title alone you can get an idea what it is about.
Pam Calvert said…
Vivian--Dylan McGee sounds great! There aren't enough character driven boy books. :-)

Ohh. Crafty Chloe. Sounds like something I need to read. Thanks for sharing, Carrie.
Anonymous said…
I love this lesson, Pam! I love how you explain character-driven pbs and your analysis of them. While I'm in the states for the next 2 wks, I'm trying to catch up on all the pbs I've missed the past few years. I'm on the lookout for character-driven now!
tj said…
I love this lesson, Pam! I love how you explain character-driven pbs and your analysis of them. While I'm in the states for the next 2 wks, I'm trying to catch up on all the pbs I've missed the past few years. I'm on the lookout for character-driven now!
Tina Cho said…
Pam, that last comment was from me. Sorry,having a computer problem!
Romelle Broas said…
This is a great topic since this is what I wanted to work on so a big thank you, Pam! The first book that comes to mind is Olivia. I see that Vivian already mentioned this. How about Ladybug girl.
CA Clark said…
I am liking this post very much and off to the library tomorrow. :)
David McMullin said…
Thanks, Pam, for this fantastic article. it has given me a lot to think about with my own stories.
ptnozell said…
Wonderful review of character-driven picture books. The Gruffalo & Clifford came to my mind immediately; also loved Owen. Think I need to add a library run for some newer examples!
Candice Conner said…
My kids and I adore the Pete the Cat series! And I had no idea that the Vampirina on Disney Jr was a pb series! My daughter is going to love that. Picking up a few copies for her (and myself) when I head to the library.
carolyn said…
Great post. Thanks for defining character driven PB. A new one is Charlotte the Scientist is Squished. I think a second one is coming out next year. Oh, and Zombelina.
Jill Purtee said…
Yes. Yes. Yes. If a child dresses as the character, the character is successful! I loved this explanation. Thank you.

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